When I tell people that I really love the show “Project Runway” they often look at me as if I have just revealed that I eat stray cats! “But you’re a monk!” is what the wide-eyed individual usually blurts out! I try to explain that what fascinates me about the series is the element of creativity involved. Each week the designers are given a fashion challenge which they have to find a way of executing. Each season there is usually at least one “Unconventional Challenge” which usually involves making a garment from very unusual items; things other than fabric. I remember one season the Unconventional Challenge brought the designers to a gardening store, in which they had to choose material. The winning garment was actually made out of bamboo placemats!
Until recently, my reaction to fashion is that I have thought that it is an exercise in narcissism. That sentence should be read with the caveat that I am a monk and therefore not especially sartorially inclined! I am not suggesting that everyone should go around naked! But I am suggesting that the fashion that we wear proclaims to others how we see ourselves. Personally, I am repulsed by the torn, dirty, ripped and shredded look that is espoused under the label of “being authentic and not putting on airs.” Such ragtag clothing often suggests to me that by wearing such garments the person shows to others that they have no respect for themselves. However, having come to know someone who loves this approach to fashion I have come to see that there is another way to understand this “look,” and that it is a way of telling society that the individual is struggling to understand who they are in reference to what society says that they must be. In other words, this is a struggle for self-definition.
When I serve at the altar I often wear vestments that would delight any Runway contestant: silks, brocades made with metallic threads, rich colors, a swooping cut to the garment. My normal daily attire, however, is black pants, t-shirt and old sweater replete with holes! I have often reflected upon the two different “Me’s” presented to the world through these two polar-opposite types of clothing that I wear. My take on the vestments that I wear is that they represent the office that I hold when at the altar, and the respect with which I approach that altar. I have often observed that many today have no sense of when it is appropriate to “dress up” for a special occasion; as a result, we see people posing with the President of the United States in flip-flops! To my mind there is something askew when our emphasis on informality (being popularly understood as “authenticity”) is such that informality becomes inflexibility!
From the moment of our birth until that last breath, the struggle to understand ourselves goes on: “Who am I? What do I believe? Who and how do I want to be? Where am I going? Where do I want to go?” Clothing is a manifestation of that struggle, and just as the struggle morphs throughout life, so too do our sartorial inclinations. While hair-shirts might have once been de rigueur in Christian spirituality, and even though I am a monk… bamboo placemats for this monk? I don’t think so!